Archive for Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Inquest approved in probe

County attorney investigating whether school board violated open meetings laws

November 7, 2007

Leavenworth County Attorney Frank Kohl will be conducting an inquisition into allegations that the Tonganoxie School Board conducted improper executive sessions earlier this year.

Kohl is acting on a complaint filed by The Mirror regarding board meetings on Aug. 28 and Sept. 10.

As part of a preliminary investigation into the matter, Kohl said he met last week with some board members individually. The board members, he said, proved less than helpful in determining whether any wrongdoing occurred.

"They said they had no recollection of what happened, except for what was in the minutes," Kohl said. "They were treading very lightly. They were acting like they were concerned ... like they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar."

After the interviews, Kohl said he decided to seek a Leavenworth County District Court judge's approval for the inquisition.

Kansas' Code of Criminal Procedures allows certain officials -- including county attorneys -- to use the investigatory technique if the official "is informed or has knowledge of any alleged violation of the laws of Kansas."

"I think there's a possibility there may, in fact, be a violation of the open meetings law," Kohl said.

Approval of the inquisition allows Kohl to issue subpoenas to compel witnesses to appear and answer questions under oath about the alleged wrongdoing.

Kohl said the subpoenas could go out this week, with the questioning taking place soon thereafter. Inquisitions can be conducted privately under state law.

The Mirror had asked Kohl to investigate whether the board talked about policy matters Aug. 28 during a series of executive sessions called for the stated purpose of discussing non-elected personnel. After a total of three hours and 30 minutes behind closed doors, board members approved in public session -- without discussion -- a new organizational chart to "streamline operations and improve communications."

The Kansas Open Meetings Act allows public boards to discuss "non-elected personnel in private. Kansas Attorney General Paul Morrison and Assistant Attorney General Theresa Marcel Bush prepared an annotated guide to the law when Morrison took office in January. In it, they say this about executive sessions called to discuss non-elected personnel:

"To discuss an individual, not groups. ... The purpose of this exception is to protect the privacy interests of individuals. Discussions of consolidation of departments or overall salary structure is not a proper topic."

The Mirror also had asked Kohl to look into a Sept. 10 executive session called to discuss matters of attorney-client privilege. The board's attorney was not present to participate in the meeting, however.

Kohl indicated if he determines there is evidence the board violated the law, he would ask the Kansas Attorney General's Office to prosecute the case.

Penalties for violating the Open Meetings Act include a fine of up to $500 for each violation. The Mirror asked Kohl, in the event a violation did occur, to seek a remedy that would require the board, its attorney and superintendent to attend, at their cost, a session on the open meetings law conducted by a representative of either the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government or the Kansas Press Association.

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